Growing up in Beijing in the 1970s, Yiyun Li used to sit on the public staircase of the Soviet-style brick apartment complex where her family lived — and listen.
She said: “People did not think children were human beings. You could sit there all day long and they would not see you. They would talk about all these fascinating things — secrets, gossip — not realizing I was absorbing everything as a sponge. I think some of my earlier stories might have come from listening to grownups talking about things.”
Li, who joined the Princeton faculty in 2017 as a professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts, didn’t always think of herself as a writer. After earning a bachelor’s in cell biology from Peking University in Beijing, she came to the United States to study immunology at the University of Iowa. After taking a writing class, she switched her focus, earning an M.F.A. in fiction writing and an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction.
Li's debut short story collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers,” won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and PEN/Hemingway Award. Her novels include “The Vagrants” and “Kinder Than Solitude.” Her memoir, “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” was published in 2017. Her work also has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories, among others. In 2010, she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant and named by The New Yorker as one of the “20 under 40” fiction writers to watch. Her novel "Where Reasons End" is forthcoming in February.
Li teaches undergraduate creative writing courses at Princeton.
Below are musings drawn from a Nov. 2 interview.
I like to think a thought and then I like to follow it, like a little seed, for a long time and see where that growth leads me. Sometimes it leads me to an entirely different place from where it started and that gives me joy.
My grandfather lived with us when I was growing up. He loved food but in the 1970s there was not a lot of food. So, he invented this soup that was quite disgusting if you think about it now but it was scrumptious then. He boiled water, then would put in one spoonful of lard and soy sauce. And I always thought it was the best soup in the world: hot, salty, greasy.
In my compulsory year in the People’s Liberation Army, I read "Lady Chatterley's Lover," which was banned in China at the time. The girl next to me somehow got a copy, and she had me mark all the sex scenes for her so she could read those. She didn't want to waste her time reading the whole book because it was in English. But I don't think that's a good book to start you on sex education.
I'm very good at making myself laugh. Oh yes, I laugh all the time. Maybe I have a low threshold for laughing when I am with myself, so any little thing makes me laugh. But I know when I'm with other people, I can't make them laugh.
When I was 25, I thought I knew about the world, about life. If I wrote a letter to my 25-year-old self now, I would tell her "You're arrogant." I would say there's a lot to learn. The world is still quite big. Don’t be arrogant.
I don’t watch TV. To recharge, I like to read old books, for instance, Greek tragedies and Shakespeare.
If I had a superpower, I would make people shyer.
This is only me, being very nerdy. Sometimes I hand-copy passages from “War and Peace.” I also read “War and Peace” and “Moby Dick” once a year. I feel everything I want from literature can be found in these two books. “War and Peace” is such an epic, but then you can go to one paragraph, just to see how Tolstoy portrays a little girl, picking up a fruit from a tree. Tolstoy is a democratic seer; he sees everything. “Moby Dick” is the epitome of metaphors: the ocean, the whale, the experience makes me feel large.
When you're reading, you're with other characters and other writers' minds. I'm non-existent for them; it's a one-way communication. They are having their party, I'm just watching. You walk among these characters — they can't see you, but you can feel their feelings. I love it.
When people feel depressed or anxious, what often troubles them is time. If you cannot see tomorrow, a minute goes so slowly, the clock doesn't move, and that's how I feel when I'm not doing well. So, I read writers’ letters and journals — you're looking at a lifetime in 600 pages. For instance, Katherine Mansfield died young but in her journal it was a lifetime. She had to live every day. Every day was still pain and struggle and poverty. Days are repetitive. Reading other people’s letters and journals makes me a little more patient with life.
Writing in English is a personal choice for me. It feels natural to me. When it feels natural you don't question it, you don't analyze it.
My favorite app on my phone is a flower recognition app. I use it all the time. If you see a flower and you don't know the name, you take a picture and it tells you what it is. The first version was Chinese. There is an English version too, and I use both. I like to know the names of things.
“Immunity” is one of my favorite words in English. It comes from the Latin immunis, or against illness. You can be against everything — but then you’re dead. I think I have this advantage of being a second language writer — I look up many words in the dictionary, and the dictionary gives the etymology.
Human emotions evolved slowly, or maybe not at all. If you read “Pride and Prejudice,” you might say, "Oh, those parents are so worried about their girls' marriage," but the same thing happens now. We may have better language for emotions now. For example, I don't think Jane Austen's characters would say, “Oh, [I’m experiencing] the five stages of grief.” But my students might say, “I'm going to write about the five stages of grief.” I would tell them, you don't name those things, you feel those things. It's good to let go of certain vocabularies.
I try to write every morning, most days. I write on my laptop, and now I have begun to experiment with writing longhand. When you are on a computer, you can keep erasing, but not when you're writing longhand. Sometimes I like to keep a few sentences on the page and see how they look.
Scientists never say, “Oh I'm not in the mood for doing science today.” You go to the lab, you do the bench work. If you fail, you do it again. You just do it. I've carried that with me into writing. Also, there is always uncertainty in science — you explore your hypothesis. I think it's the same as fiction. You can't start with, "I'm going to write about this character who is suffering from grief, loss." You start with, “I don't know what this character feels when he loses something.” You start with not knowing.
A character should explore the world and herself. And I'm only following her. I ask a lot of questions. A character gets up in the morning and looks at herself in the mirror: What does she see? Herself or someone else? When you put characters into these moments that are extremely private, they will show you something.
Eventually a story always has to make characters uncomfortable, so you push something onto the character. If a character wants to be quiet, you put all these noises in and see how she reacts.
Your characters and your stories are like children. You give birth to these children but you have to send them into the world and then they have to live their own lives. Some people will hate the characters, some people will love them, just like in real life. I like to imagine my characters going out into the world to interact with the readers by themselves. And I'm completely free from that. I just let go.
I learned writing by reading William Trevor’s work. Without William Trevor there would be no “me” here. The first time I encountered his work, it was a story published in The New Yorker. Later he and I became friends. I often think of my stories as conversation with his stories. For instance, I would choose a specific story of his — his stories are set in England or Ireland, in a different time. My story is set in China in the 21st century. If you look on the surface, there's nothing in common, but the characters are talking to his characters. I did explain that to him and he liked that.
Chekhov was a very harsh critic. If I could have any writer, dead or alive, read my work, I think I would like to see if Chekhov would be willing to read a story of mine. I would like a critic like him. He read Gorky's work, and he wrote a letter to Gorky and said, "Oh, you know, you're good, there's nothing I can teach you about writing but!" and after that "but" it was the harshest criticism.
People would say I portray the world in a bleak way. It's not bleak to me. I think what is bleak is when you create a veil to make the world feel better. Literature is one place we should be able to experience bleakness and brightness and anything in between. Literature should not make people feel comfortable, it should challenge the readers. If a book confirms everything I know and everything I think, then that is disappointing.
One assignment I give my beginning fiction students is to read James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room." There are so many things to learn from that novel. I ask them to write one page to try to imitate Baldwin. Sometimes students realize how hard it is to write just one page of good writing. In "Giovanni's Room," Baldwin has one passage about taking a train ride. I point out to my students that he describes all the strangers as intimate friends. And he describes an intimate lover as a stranger. I think that's what you want to learn from Baldwin. You don't write strangers as strangers; you write strangers like your best friend, with that intimate feeling.
To help my students feel comfortable writing about uncomfortable things, I start with a smaller group for critique. If you have a student being critiqued by 10 students at the beginning of the semester, it's too much. So, we do two or three in a group, to get them to start talking, to get to know each other. When you have two or three classmates in a group reading your work and one will tell you, I don't understand this, or this is really good, it's a way to ease into that. I did this in a memoir class, which certainly has to deal with a lot of personal topics.
I love that my students are not just English majors. I have a student who is an ecology and evolutionary biology major and she went to Africa — she was counting the cattle with the local farmers and doing all these fabulous things and she came back to write. And I just thought, how wonderful! I have students who are focusing on theoretical physics or computer science or math — they bring their backgrounds into their writing.
If I could tell incoming first-year students at Princeton one piece of advice, I would say, I'm more curious about them and more willing to talk with them than they realize. I would say: Go talk to your professor. Go visit during office hours.